Price Of Success?

Sean O'Hair, 22, has the PGA Tour card he and his dad wanted so much--but now they don't have each other

Sean O'Hair

O'Hair, who turned pro at 17, made the cut last week in his first PGA Tour event.

January 21, 2005

Many pros take some detours to get to the PGA Tour, but 22-year-old Sean O'Hair, who made his rookie debut last week at the Sony Open, describes his journey as downright "twisted." He is not talking about traveling curvy highways, either, although in a grow-up-fast adolescence directed by a domineering dad intent to see his son on tour, he did plenty of that, too.

O'Hair finished in a tie for fourth at qualifying school finals last month to earn his card and stands as the second-youngest player on tour in 2005. Yet the numbers on his birth certificate are belied by those on his internal odometer, given that O'Hair has logged more than 200,000 miles traveling around golf's minor leagues since turning pro after his junior year of high school. Then again, that distance pales compared to the chasm between O'Hair and his father, Marc, whose relationship with his only son is characterized as dysfunctional by some and alarming by others.

Sure, O'Hair made it to the big leagues at an age when top college stars are just getting their spikes dirty as professionals, but at what price? "It's not the happiest of stories, but it's a good ending," Sean says of his six years as a struggling pro. "Somehow, some way, I pulled it off." His PGA Tour career got off to a respectable start as O'Hair made the cut and finished T-72 at the Sony.

Peeling away the layers of the O'Hair saga is golf's equivalent to skinning an onion: It makes some folks tear up, and the smell lingers. "The reality of it is, it's going to haunt him for a while," says O'Hair's attorney and agent, Michael Troiani, "sort of like Vijay Singh has had to deal with the scorecard issue and John Daly has had to deal with his problems."

O'Hair was one of the nation's top junior players, a star in the American Junior Golf Association, when he turned pro at 17, one calendar year before fellow teens and future PGA Tour card-holders Ty Tryon and Kevin Na. With little, if any, fanfare on Sept. 9, 1999, O'Hair became the first prominent American male in years to turn pro as a high-school student.

As much for his turbulent background as his talent, Sean is no longer under the radar. Marc O'Hair, 52, signed management contracts with his son, says he invested $2 million in his boy's professional future and subjected Sean to a physical and psychological regimen that would make most drill sergeants blush. Sean broke free in 2002 and has not spoken to his father since a perfunctory greeting at Sean's wedding more than two years ago.

For the father who drove his son so hard, the acrimony burns like a knife in the back. "I'm an iron-asshole bastard who made all of his money the hard way, through my own sweat," says Marc, who lives with his wife, Brenda, and 15-year-old daughter, K.D., in Lakeland, Fla. "I invested everything I had in his golf game. I was floored when my flesh and blood, my own son, told me to shove it."

Few others, though, were surprised that push came to shove. The roots of the rancorous tale began when Marc O'Hair sold his stake in the family shutter business in Lubbock, Texas, for $2.75 million and ultimately moved to Florida and enrolled Sean, then 15, at the David Leadbetter Golf Academy in Bradenton, Fla. The father and son quickly distinguished themselves among the school's many prodigies and prospects—not necessarily for the right reasons, however.

"Behind every great kid, there's usually a domineering senior citizen," says Gary Gilchrist, an instructor at the Leadbetter Academy during Sean's tenure. "Good or bad, they always seem to be there. But somewhere, somebody has to draw the line."

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